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A Beijing restaurant critic arrives at a crossroads in this absorbing family drama

Gu (Xin Baiqing) struggles with his own sense of impermanence in <em>The Shadowless Tower.</em>
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Gu (Xin Baiqing) struggles with his own sense of impermanence in The Shadowless Tower.

The title of The Shadowless Tower refers to an enormous 13th-century Buddhist temple that looms over the Xicheng district of Beijing. It's called the White Pagoda, and it was designed in such a way that its shadow can be hard to see.

That makes it a poignant metaphor for the movie's middle-aged protagonist, Gu, who's struggling with his own sense of impermanence. As he quietly drifts through a life riven by loss and disappointment, he wonders, as time slips away, if he himself will leave a meaningful impression.

The viewer, however, will not forget him anytime soon. Gu is played by the actor Xin Baiqing, whose movingly understated performance holds you through every step of this leisurely but absorbing drama.

We first meet Gu as he and his family are visiting the grave of his recently deceased mom. It takes a few moments to figure out how everyone's related. The 6-year-old girl we see is Gu's daughter, and she's as happy and upbeat as her name, Smiley, would lead you to believe.

But we soon learn that Smiley lives with Gu's older sister and brother-in-law, who have effectively adopted her. While Gu is very much a part of their lives, he's an unreliable father at best, prone to showing up late — and sometimes drunk — for regular visits.

Whatever Gu's failings as a parent, they seem to faintly echo those of his own father, whom he hasn't seen since he was a young boy for reasons that are not immediately clear. Now, decades later, his long-absent father has been quietly reaching out to the family, and Gu is considering letting him back in.

You can imagine how this all might play out in a different movie, with stormy flashbacks, anguished recriminations and a tear-jerking happy ending. But the writer-director Zhang Lu is after something subtler and more realistic. He knows how hard it can be, in life, for even two willing parties to connect.

The movie's other key relationship proves similarly elusive. Gu, who once dreamed of being a poet, now works as a restaurant critic. One of his colleagues is a mischievous young photographer named Ouyang, played by Huang Yao, who takes pictures of the dishes he writes about.

But while the two have a flirtatious chemistry, their romance never really gets off the ground. That may be because of their age difference, which Ouyang pokes fun at by playfully introducing Gu as her father or her boyfriend, depending on the situation. But it may also have something to do with Gu's passivity. As another character puts it, "Too much politeness builds a wall between people."

In its own unassuming way, The Shadowless Tower means to knock down some of those walls. Most of us realize, sooner or later, that we're more like our parents or other family members than we care to admit. But the movie articulates that truth with a gentleness that can take your breath away, like the eerie moment when Gu realizes how much Smiley resembles the grandfather she's never met.

And if this is a story of intergenerational conflict, we see some of that tension reflected in Beijing itself. The camera follows Gu around the city, where sleek modern surfaces coexist with ancient traditional buildings — like that White Pagoda, often seen in the background.

There's another inspired touch that resonates powerfully if you know to look for it. Gu's father is well played by the filmmaker Tian Zhuangzhuang, who, like many Chinese directors of his generation, experienced government censorship and persecution earlier in his career. His 1993 drama, The Blue Kite, set during the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, was banned in mainland China, and Tian himself was restricted from filmmaking for 10 years.

I don't think it's a coincidence that Tian's character in The Shadowless Tower is seen flying a kite, or that he's shown to be emerging from exile. There's sadness in that parallel, but also a sense of hope — a reminder that while none of us can change the past, the future remains beautifully unwritten.

Copyright 2024 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Justin Chang is a film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Fresh Air, and a regular contributor to KPCC's FilmWeek. He previously served as chief film critic and editor of film reviews for Variety.

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